November 2, 2006
Yes on Measure H: a measure of humanity
Every Starbucks I visit these days, from Koreatown to Santa Monica, has its own homeless population. Calling these men and women transients is actually wishful thinking. They come for the coffee and stay for the restroom and heating.
I don't blame them, or Starbucks; I blame us. In a city of enormous wealth, we've allowed enormous numbers of poor and disabled men, women and children to fend for themselves. With 40,000 people asleep on the streets or in cars each night, Los Angeles has the largest homeless population of any city in the country.
At the same time, the homeless have become about as hip a cause as Sacheen Littlefeather. Sure your bar or bat mitzvah kid may throw a few dollars their way for a social action project, but obviously that's a few billion short.
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) survey, there are 88,000 homeless residents in L.A. County on any given day, and only 17,000 available beds.
Our government officials, prompted in no small part by a series of excellent stories by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, have sought to crack down on downtown's Skid Row. But I was there last week, and it's hard to see that the actual denizens got the message. The LAHSA survey found that there are 5,700 shelter beds for the row's 20,000 "residents." You can take people off the sidewalks, but where are you going to put them?
So now comes Measure H on the Nov. 7 ballot, which seeks to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness and address some of the root causes.
What's interesting about Measure H is that it offers no single simple solution. About half the people on skid row are the chronic homeless -- people who have mental or other disabilities, or addictions. But the others, according to LAHSA Commissioner Douglas Mirrell, are people who have fallen on hard times and simply can't find their way into affordable housing in Los Angeles' tight and pricey market. Mirrell said he still can't forget visiting one shelter downtown and seeing people lining up for beds "wearing suits and carrying briefcases. They were working minimum-wage jobs as clerks and secretaries." Any humane approach seeks to add more beds and services on Skid Row while enabling the working poor to get a foothold in Los Angeles' skyrocketing housing market.
Measure H would enable the city to issue $1 billion in bonds to provide about 10,000 new homes and rental units over 10 years. These funds would be placed in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and divvied so that $250 million would help working families buy their first home, $350 million would help build rental housing affordable to low-income working families, $250 million would build housing for homeless people, and $150 million would to be allocated for rental or homeless housing based on future needs.
The city administrative analyst reported that Measure H would cost the owner of a home with an assessed value of $500,000 another $73 a year for 30 years. The measure's supporters include Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief Bill Bratton, the Rev. Gregory Boyle and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, as well as for-profit and nonprofit builders and developers who would, of course, get some of those home- and apartment-building funds. (Developers provided most of the money for the measure's recent television ad campaign.)
The organized opposition is a smaller group that includes Jon Coupal, president of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. They've raised concerns that another bureaucracy may not act efficiently to get the monies where they're needed. Opponents also claim that there are existing programs to help homebuyers and that Measure H is a payday for developers and builders.
Well, sure, but Jimmy Carter can't do everything. Yes, somebody will make some profit in the course of providing more places for people to live. But in a city where even a postwar fixer-upper near Balboa Park will set you back $1 million, government has to play a role. Nearly 90 percent of those who live in Los Angeles can't afford to buy a home here.
"We built affordable housing downtown, near the Harbor Freeway and Wilshire," said Thomas Safran, a large manager and developer of affordable housing. "We had 2,700 applications for 73 places. The market never has solved this problem, never will."
Safran, a Measure H supporter, has worked all sides of the housing market -- starting his career in the Johnson administration at HUD, founding his own successful company, and volunteering for Menorah Housing, which builds low-income units around the city. He points out that people who decry taxpayer subsidies receive one every time they write off their mortgage interest. Measure H asks people to give back a little of the money they save on mortgage interest.
"Look," he said, "I'm no great fan of super liberal Democratic policies, but the government and private sectors need to work together on this. It may not solve the problem completely, but the first step is the first step." Or, I suppose, we can always hope they build more Starbucks.
And don't forget to vote Nov. 7.